In my initial posts, I characterized After Eden as an investigation of gardens as places of repose in an otherwise chaotic world, as places of beauty reflective of the age they were created in, as cultivated, enclosed places that protect us briefly from the unruliness without. Or, as I wrote at the conclusion of the first post, “this site is dedicated to the celebration of the creation we fell into—and to our desire to cultivate, collect, catalogue, and control it.” Very recently, though, I discovered a new rationale for the garden—the motivation of power made manifest.
Now, I do not mean the garden as a display of opulence or wealth, or even the aesthetic of an age, such as Versailles. Nor do I mean the garden as park reflecting the character of a country, such as the Mall in Washington, D.C. I mean the garden as vestibule to a seat of power, as a consciously constructed setting one passes through to have an audience with authority.
This discovery came to me in Andalucía in southern Spain earlier in January. For some time, I had been wanting to visit the area to see the medieval Arabic, Moorish, and Mudéjar gardens there. Little remains of medieval planting schemes, the gardens having been redesigned several times over the intervening years; they are far more reflective of the Renaissance and later than of the Middle Ages. For example, Magnolia grandiflora, or the southern magnolia, is ever present in Andalucía, although it came to Spain most likely in the late 17th-century. The tree to the right, along the Paseo de Catalina de Rivera near the Alcázar, is an example that could be hundreds of years old—a truly magnificent tree. Regardless of modern plantings and garden design, much of the garden architecture from the 10th to the 15th-centuries remains, though, and it is that architecture that led me to the point of this post. The Real Alcázar in Seville, the Alhambra and Generalife in Granada, and the Medina Azahara just northwest of Córdoba are stunning examples of Moorish and Mudéjar architecture that encloses rich gardens designed not only for aesthetics and leisure, but for impressing upon visitors to these palaces the erudite culture and the power of their inhabitants.
The particular garden structures I’m referring to are generally rectangular, highlighting extended approaches to an inner room of reception or audience, such as the Patio de las Donecellas, in the Real Alcázar below, built by the Christian King Peter of Castile in the second half of the 14th century.
The sunken gardens and the linear reflecting pool point the clear way to a destination of significance. In this case that destination is the extraordinary Mudéjar Sálon de Embajadores, or Ambassador’s Hall. This room’s rich Moorish decoration with Arabic inscription is set off with the early 15th-century gilded, wood interlace doom.
One of the most lavishly decorated rooms in the palace, it was a main room used by Peter of Castile when he was in residence. Entrance to the hall is through three characteristic Moorish horseshoe arches in each wall, as seen in the photo to the right above and in this photo of the “peacock gate” from the exterior of the hall.
In the photo of the Patio de las Doncellas above, beyond the two central arches, three corresponding interior horseshoe arches can be made out at the entrance to the hall.
A similar arrangement can be seen in Granada’s the 14th-century Alhambra, where the Patio de Arrayanes with its myrtle hedges and broad reflecting pool leads to the Sálon de Embajadores. On the day of my photograph below, the reflecting pool was all too effective, and I was left with an unfortunate glare, but the image makes the point nonetheless. The hall was once the throne room and reception area of the last of the Nasrid caliphs before the Reconquista in 1492.
The salon is set off with the stunning ceiling representing the seven heavens of the Muslim cosmos. Careful counting will reveal seven cycles of stars.
Just northeast of the Alhambra sits the Generalife, the summer palace of the Nasrid rulers. The palace dates from the very early 14th-century, but the gardens date from the late 13th-century when there were several orchards and pastures. Much of the planting design now dates from the 20th-century, still reminders of the earlier gardens—as well as a view of the city—can be seen from the palace’s balconies.
The centrepiece of the Generalife is the Patio de la Acequia. Its fountains are modern, but the long pool framed by flower gardens repeats the pattern of the Alcázar and Alhambra as it takes the visitor to the Sala Regia, or Royal Hall. Below it is seen along its long axis and from the upper garden above.
There are, of course other gardens at the Alcázar, Alhambra, and the Generalife, as seen respectively below. Orange trees, cedars, cypress, palms, myrtles, and of course, water features are common.
I want to close, though, with one final reference to garden as vestibule to a site of audience and authority. The ruins of the magnificent 10th-century Moorish palace Medina Azahara, not far from Córdoba remains essentially unchanged from its medieval design. Begun in 936-940 CE by Abd al-Rahman III, in support of his claim as Caliph and leader of the entire Islamic world, the palace was designed to manifest his political and religious immanence. On the left below, the impressive red and white arched entrance portico, typical of al Andalus, leads to weapons square, believed to be intended for military parades. The façade of the residence of the Caliph’s administrator, on the right, reflects the importance of senior members of the caliphate.
My focus, though, are the structures just visible on far left of the photograph below: the corner of the Sálon Rico of Abd al-Rahman III and, in front of it, the large pool of the upper garden that the hall opens on to. The hall and pool function as an architectural whole, guiding visitors from the garden through a double-arched porch into the Caliph’s reception hall.
Unfortunately, on the day I visited Medina Azhara, this area was closed for archaeological study. Therefore, in place of a personal photo, I am providing two images from the site’s official brochure guide, Madinat al-Zahara Archaeological Ensemble (www.museosdeandalucia.es).
Approaching such a grand salon through a richly appointed porch framed by elegant arches, fronted by a grand pool set off with lush gardens situated above the surrounding countryside, must have convinced the visitor that distinctive authority and power awaited.
In retrospect of my visit to Medina Azahara, the positioning of its geographical setting, the exquisiteness of its architectural design and decoration, the expanses of it gardens, and its historical significance to Moorish Spain leave me wishing that I have taken more time, prepared better, and photographed more. However, in doing a little post-trip follow-up, I came upon the following quotation about Islamic gardens of the period by D. Fairchild Ruggles, a major scholar of Eastern and Western medieval and early modern gardens.
“the palace garden is not only a place of beautiful flowers celebrated in manuscript painting and rich carpets, and an agricultural site where utilitarian irrigation and plant propagation occur; it is also a stage for statecraft and ceremony, and even more, a sphere in which the underlying order of the political system is expressed. Because the garden looks natural. . . it can express political ideas that then appear naturally ordained. . .. This was the argument I made with respect to the gardens of the tenth-century Andalusian palace Madinat al-Zahara’, where I showed that the garden was a metaphor for the entire cultivated landscape, and the central, elevated position of the king as its central occupant mirrored his position at the apex of the political hierarchy.” (“Islamic Gardens in an Expanding Field.” Gardens of Renaissance Europe and the Islamic Empires: Encounters and Confluences. Pennsylvania State UP, 7).
After having read this, I felt confident in my epiphany about the garden as vestibule to power. But I am also left thinking in new ways about Versailles and the Washington, DC, Mall.
© Susan K. Hagen and After Eden, 2019